There isn't an official Greek god of yogurt, says Basel Nassar, co-founder of Greek Gods Yogurt. But with Americans' newfound passion for the stuff, manufacturers might want to start a festival for love goddess Aphrodite and commerce god Hermes. Sales of Greek-style yogurt soared like Pegasus, increasing by 51 percent in the past year, to more than $25 million, according to SPINS, a market-research firm for naturals.
What's the difference between Greek yogurt and the yogurt Americans are used to eating? "Everything," says Sarah Badger, communications associate for Oikos Organic at Stonyfield Farms in Londonderry, N.H. "Greek yogurt is totally different from American yogurt, which tends to be soupier and not nearly as potent. [Greek yogurt is] creamy and fresh without the fat."
It's the process that makes the yogurt so thick that qualifies it as "Greek," says Hamdi Ulukaya, a third-generation producer of Mediterranean dairy products and president of Chobani Greek Yogurt, based in South Edmeston, N.Y. The creamy thickness comes not from adding something, but from taking something away—more specifically, a-whey. Unlike American-style yogurt, Greek yogurt is strained while still warm to remove the whey from the milk and cultures. The process was developed thousands of years ago to prolong the life of the yogurt without refrigeration. Thanks to the ancient Greeks' lack of home appliances, we can enjoy a low-fat, cultured dairy product with a consistency closer to crème fraiche than melted Häagen Dazs. The straining removes most of the water, concentrating the protein content, explains Ulukaya. Greek yogurt has about twice the protein content as American yogurt. It's also friendlier to lactose-intolerant tummies; he says "99.9 percent of the lactose is removed by straining."
The growth in the product's popularity during the past few years parallels overall patterns in American eating, "the overall trend in foods—healthy, organic and functional," says Ioannis Papageorgiou, president and COO of Fage USA Dairy Industry in Johnston, N.Y. Fage, Greece's biggest dairy, has been importing its yogurts for years. The company recently built a factory in the dairy haven of upstate New York where Chobani also has a plant. When Dannon introduced a similar product in 1942, it was a total flop. The company had to add fruit and sugar to entice Americans to pull out their spoons. Stonyfield tried to sell a Greek-style yogurt in 1983 to no avail. But when it tried again in 2007 with Oikos, Americans were ready to embrace a tarter, thicker yogurt. "It's the whole-food phenomena," says Stonyfield's Badger. "People are beginning to appreciate what food is supposed to taste like instead of things trying to be something different."
Plain varieties have remained popular while honey and fruit flavors such as blueberry and more exotic flavors like fig and pomegranate are taking off.
The yogurt has also received a boost from the recent spotlight on the Mediterranean diet and helpful probiotics. But in addition to the taste, Greek yogurt's "biggest draw is the fact that it's twice the protein, half the carbs," Badger says. "It makes sense for so many people–dieters, athletes trying to get the protein, foodies and cooks."
The biggest challenge has been distribution. Manufacturers report hundreds of panicked emails reporting shelves empty of Greek yogurt. Unlike other brands, Mountlake Terrace, Wash.-based Greek Gods uses a natural stabilizer in its products to increase consistency throughout distribution. Cabot Creamery Cooperative was hesitant about being mentioned in this story. Its Greek Style yogurt is currently only available on the East Coast, though after it was mis-reported to be national last year, irate fans called wondering why it wasn't available in their areas. Perhaps there needs to be an offering to the Greek god of delivery.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXX/number 1/p. 22